Awaiting the ubiquity of the self-driving automobile, a revolution long-promised by the wunderkinds deep in their gleaming metal lairs, I am yet resigned to a chauffeur’s ignominy, yet enthused by the freedoms of the open road.  Regardless of my complicated relationship with driving, of my abhorrence of traffic, inefficiency, stupidity, I cannot deny that being behind the wheel is one of my core human experiences, one that has begotten some of my most indelible adventures.  My heart and mind hold a begrudging appreciation not only for the increasingly complex engineering of these conveyances, but also for the romance, the mystery, the sheer drama of our ingrained car culture.

Our urban summer in Paris was diametric to our mountain life in terms of reliance on a car.  With the exception of airport-bound Ubers and short jaunts with my brother and uncle, we zipped about the city on our Dance electric bikes or ran joyfully through the intimate metropolis.  Particularly in light of the comical congestion, I did not miss driving one iota.  Imagine my surprise when, after two months, I again sat expectantly in the driver’s seat of my rental Renault Clio, setting off southward from Tivat for destinations as of then unknown.

Many diluvian-delayed hours later, as I had finally crossed the border into Albania and was cruising along a road system still fitfully finding its way to modernity, radio blasting, windows down, the Adriatic to my right, I was blanketed by that most gorgeous mixture of trepidation and elation.  Driving in the Balkans is not a relaxing endeavor:  the drivers are largely insane, taking blind corners in the wrong direction at high speed.  Combined with barely-paved, circuitous, narrow, high mountain roads often trod by lumbering bovid herds, it made for many tense moments.  Still, I was captivated by the pure release of solo venturing into a completely foreign environment, in control of my direction and destiny, being struck dumb by stunning scenery at which I repeatedly stopped to stare and smile.

Never before having crossed a land border by myself , I did not think to be nervous until about three kilometers away from the Macedonian border, perched in remote hills, when it occurred to me that my American maleness, my occupation, my blue fingernails, my unaccompanied presence may have been cause for suspicion.  I was not wrong.  Not having the luxury of passengers or a guide or a bus driver, I rolled up to the guard booth, handed over my passport and waited.  Fortunately, I am as good at talking myself out of trouble manufactured by a bored officer as I am at speaking myself into harm’s way.  Leaving the customs agent chuckling, I was on the road again, tickled with an experience that only this trusty little car could have provided.

After two weeks circumnavigating Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo, with myriad beautiful stops, some planned and some completely spontaneous, I returned my only companion to the airport in Podgorica with but a few hundred Euros’ worth of uncovered damage.  I always read the fine print professionally, but in my personal life, I cannot be bothered and it sometimes costs me.  It was a small penance for driving with the type of reckless abandon that typified my environment, a mere pittance compared to how likely it seemed that I would total the hatchback.

At rest and at peace, I sat having a casual macchiato and thought back across the decades, recalling all of the hair-raising and harebrained journeys in an international rental car.  I recollected the tears after being robbed in Zeerust, the bee in my undies as I drove cliffside in Kefalonia, driving on the left side of the road for the first time in a blizzard going up to Treble Cone, the through-the-night boogie back to Brussels from Prague with the intervening German police stop, the dreamy whiteout on the way to Rusutsu, and so many other joys and terrors.  I cringed at my idiocy, but I also felt intense gratitude.  I would not have seen the world in the same way had I been traveling in any other fashion.

Now home and traipsing relentlessly up and down I-70, I sometimes struggle to find that level of appreciation, usually when some joker has caused a pileup or when I am plumb exhausted.  But with my not-so-little sidekick, a soundtrack of jambands and Taylor Swift, and resplendent scenery, I try to envision even carpool as an asphalt adventure.

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